Schools funding: beyond the dog’s breakfast?

The funding of schools has for over fourty years been a source of strident debate and sectarian conflict in Australia, the subject of a seemingly inexorable blame-game fought between the Federal and State Governments, and a fight for resources waged by mostly well-meaning advocates from both the government and non-government school sectors. It is a conflict inflamed by the reality that the education of Australia’s children – the people who will eventually forge the nation’s future – is what is at stake. Terrorism, climate change and crime might be the topics du jour that tend to be splashed across the front pages and in the commercial news, but it is arguably the national response to the challenges facing our education system in an increasingly globalised world that can make the most substantive difference to Australian society in the coming decades.

It is in this context that Julia Gillard, as the former Minister for Education for the Rudd Government, announced the commencement of a Review of Funding for Schooling back in April 2010, with the aim of defining an approach for funding schools beyond 2013. The terms of reference for the review are fairly broadly-defined, and are available here [PDF]. This review is scheduled to report before the end of 2011, and public submissions to the review close at the end of this month, on Thursday, 31st March 2011. You can make a submission to the review online here.

As the most significant public review of schools funding in Australia undertaken since the epoch-defining Schools in Australia report delivered by the Whitlam Government’s Australian Schools Commission Interim Committee in 1973, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the results of this review really matter. The review process represents a once-in-a-decade opportunity for the Federal Government to shake off the policy squibbing of recent decades and embark on a program of serious educational funding reform.

Such reform, if it is to be serious, must deliver a needs-based funding model that has equity at its heart, and it must also consider the prospect of constitutional change. The “elegant” silence of Australia’s creaking Constitution regarding who is explicitly responsible for doing what has laid the foundation for the dog’s breakfast of schools funding arrangements that we enjoy today. The Federal Government finds itself by convention responsible for the majority funding of non-government schools, whilst providing GST revenue to the State Governments to majority fund public schools across the country. It is a system ripe for political manipulation, fostering an environment in which anyone with a gripe about schools can blame anyone for anything, and everyone can, in a manner of speaking, still be right.

Timed as they are, the recommendations of the review panel seem likely to prove a formative influence on Gillard Government’s re-election platform heading towards 2013. Collectively we can only hope that the review panel proves bold enough to make fair and far-reaching recommendations, but certainly as individuals we can all do our bit by having our say based on our frustrations and our personal experiences with the nation’s schools before the end of the month.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

MySchool, your school, and everyone else’s school

The newly launched MySchool website looks set to prompt a lot of interest, speculation, and controversy. Per-school indicators such as the number of enrolments, the number of teachers, the number of indigenous students, together with comparative reading, writing, spelling, grammar and numeracy rankings, are all available online to anybody interested. Although the website does not explicitly present the information in a “league table” format, the government may as well have done so. The major newspapers have wasted no time scraping data down from the website and compiling their own league tables [PDF].

Although there are still some question marks around the reliability and fairness of the data presented in some cases, the commotion seems to be centred on a few broad but intriguing conclusions:

1) Selective public schools are outperforming even the best private schools.

2) In some communities, local public schools are considerably outperformed by local private schools.

3) In some communities, local private schools are considerably outperformed by or performing equivalently to local public schools.

The first and third conclusions raise some interesting conundrums for families about the real worth of private schools (particularly when one factors in the often expensive fees payable). The second conclusion will certainly result in some pressure being brought to bear on some public schools whose students are struggling. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, with some teachers and school officials no doubt feeling boosted by the release of the results, and others feeling somewhat deflated and betrayed. I’ve been on the fence on this issue a bit in the past, but I think on the whole that allowing this information to be publicly available is a step in the right direction. Parents, whose taxes fund both public and private schools, have a right to know if students in their local schools are performing poorly. They have a right to know (for example) if the attendance rate in little Jimmy’s school is markedly below the national average, or to know that kids in little Jane’s school seem to be rubbish spellers, by and large. School administrators will clearly need to begin explaining the performance of their school and working harder to address issues that the data suggests exist.

The value of the website seems set to increase further in the future as more data sets becomes available (allowing parents and the general public to see whether their local schools are improving or not), and more comparative indicators, such as financial information (promised for later this year). It will be particularly interesting to learn which schools appear to be doing the most for their students with least, and which schools in particular should be receiving much more funding than they are receiving under the current schools funding formula, preserved by Labor from the Howard Government years.

The Rudd Government’s “Education Revolution” has been underwhelming so far, but there is certainly at least a faint scent of progress in the air thanks to the launch of this simple little website.

When wanting the best equals plagiarism

I think Kevin Donnelly probably has a point when he suggests in The Australian today that Rudd Labor is borrowing a bit from Blair Labour on education (not sure this is necessarily a bad thing anyway). This point, however, is just a bit silly:

Even the rhetoric is the same.

Just compare Blair’s exhortation, “Our goal: to make Britain the best-educated and skilled country in the world education, education, education”, to Kevin Rudd’s statement: “We need to lift our vision and start to imagine an Australia where we turn ourselves into the most educated economy, the most educated society in the Western world.”

Frankly I would be much more concerned if a political party was not interested in making their nation’s education system the best humanly possible, than about any supposed plagiarisation of rhetoric. Of course, Donnelly seems averse to any education agenda that involves the state providing solutions to problems, so I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that the Rudd Government’s agenda has stuck in his craw. To the wolves, public school students; to the wolves.

Unpowered, unsupported computers for schools?

One of the most publicly prominent foundation stones of Federal Labor’s “education revolution” policy program was the so-called National Secondary School Computer Fund. Under this policy, announced during the November 2007 election campaign, a Rudd Labor Government would theoretically provide access to a dedicated computer for every Australian student in Years 9 – 12. Secondary schools across the country would be able to apply for capital grants of up to $1 million each from the government for funding either the upgrade of existing computers or purchase of new computers for this purpose. Although the actual educational benefits of this policy are a little on the nebulous side, the summary policy principles were sound, and one would have to assume that it was a potentially vote-turning policy for the then Rudd Opposition going into election day.

Unfortunately, there is one aspect of this policy program that leaves something to be desired from the perspective of no doubt many schools and of course the state and territory governments; namely, the funding of second-order costs for all this new kit. Who pays to install, configure and maintain all these new computers that the Rudd Government wants to parachute into schools? Who pays the increased electricity bills that will no doubt result from all this new energy consumption? How will all the computers be housed, bearing in mind that many secondary schools across the nation suffer from a lack of teaching space as it is, let alone if they have potentially over a hundred new computers to support? The NSW Government, struggling as it is at the moment with a range of financial and political issues, has just in the last week announced itself as the first to withdraw its support for the program. It remains to be seen whether the Rees Government’s rebellion will lead to something of a domino effect amongst the other state and territory governments, but clearly Federal Education Minister Julia Gillard and the Prime Minister need to have a good hard think about how the potential fallout from a collapse in support for the program should be managed.

As I am sure any senior manager in a decent-sized government department or business can tell you, hardware procurement is usually one of the less risky and more manageable components of an organisation’s information technology services. Where costs tend to blow out on IT projects is when mid to long-term factors like the costs of providing ongoing support and maintenance are not factored into the equation. The phrase “a computer for every school kid” seems like a simple enough proposition and appears from the very outset to be quite an attractive one, but one does have to wonder whether the mid to long-term costs of this proposition were adequately investigated by the Rudd Opposition before it embarked on this policy.

Is it fair and reasonable to expect that the state and territory governments have to cough up the money to install, support and maintain all the new hardware that the federal government has dumped on them?

One can use the keyboard, the other can use the mouse, and then they can swap

Farrah Tomazin reported in The Age last week that the Rudd Government appears to be getting just a bit cheeky with another one of its election promises, this time in relation to the provision of individual computers to all high school students in Years 9-12. Education Minister and Deputy PM Julia Gillard seemed to be engaging in a spot of pragmatic goal-shifting when announcing the funding in Essendon a few days ago:

“In the first few rounds of this program, we are taking schools to a ratio of one to two,” Ms Gillard said as she announced the long-awaited funding at Essendon East Keilor District College yesterday.

“Schools that have participated in this round will be able to apply in other rounds for further resources, but we wanted, in the initial stages, to make sure that students around the country benefited from a ratio of one to two.”

Tomazin does not shirk from interpreting these comments as effectively a broken election promise in her story. However, even without considering the financial aspect, for plain and simple operational reasons it makes sense to roll out the promised computers incrementally. Allocating 100% of the computers required for a small subset of schools in this first phase of the funding allocation (the current allocation has a five year budget) would mean that some schools may miss out on funding altogether until the final phase of the process. It would also immediately burden schools (particularly those with limited existing infrastructure and resources) with a small cache of computers with considerable maintenance, power and access requirements, requirements that need to be met as soon as possible in order for full value to be derived from the venture.

In short, I don’t think this announcement from Gillard reflects a true shift in either rhetoric or intentions. What I think is far more likely is that the financial and operational considerations associated with introducing over $1 billion in computing equipment to schools across Australia have forced the government to be pragmatic about how it delivers. Until the delivery has been fully completed, the jury should remain out on the question of whether this particular election promise has been met. I don’t think Tomazin is being fair in jumping the gun here, and nor do I think there is much to be gained for the Opposition from the current situation with this policy.

Excellent, if belated news on the schools funding front

I have fairly strongly and with some frustration criticised Federal Labor on a number of occasions recently in relation to the weak position on schools funding they took to the election last year. Possibly with a view towards minimising potential electoral pitfalls leading up to the poll, a decision was taken by the then Federal Opposition to simply adopt the Howard Government schools funding model until at least 2012. This stance certainly did a good job of eliminating schools funding policy as a potential electoral saviour for the Coalition, but it also served to entrench an inaccurate and arguably unfair funding model for four more years, longer even than the first term of the Rudd Labor Government.

Despite the delay, which admittedly does ensure that the current quadrennial funding arrangements are not abruptly disrupted, I nevertheless applaud the announcement of a schools funding review made by Julia Gillard in a recent speech delivered at the AGM of the Association Of Independent Schools NSW; as Jewel Topsfield and Farrah Tomazin report for The Age:

Education Minister Julia Gillard has blasted the existing system as complex and confusing, and declared that a complete review of schools funding would be finished by 2011.

In keeping with Labor’s pre-election promise to retain the existing funding model until 2012, changes would not be introduced until 2013. But Ms Gillard has made it clear she wants radical change across private and public schools funding.

I find it very interesting that this review of schools funding is painted primarily in such a negative light; the main story that Topsfield and Tomazin appear to pull from the speech is that “hundreds of private schools could be at risk of losing some federal funding”. This seems like wild speculation at this exceedingly early stage, and particularly so given that there will be no change to the current funding arrangements until 2013. Of course, the possibility that hundreds of private and public schools could have their funding increased as a result of an overhaul of schools funding is not canvassed, although that is probably just as likely an outcome.

It just goes to show that the private school that stands to potentially lose funding (or even – has its funding “reviewed”) is today apparently one of Australia’s most revered and protected sacred cows. It would seem that some people out there are decidedly short of context when it comes to budgeting and where the majority of problems requiring funding solutions reside in Australian schooling.

Measuring science education standards

The OECD PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) is the world’s largest international education survey, involving schools and students in fifty countries, and assessing the knowledge and skills of 15 year olds as they approach the end of compulsory education. Surveys are carried out every three years, with surveys focusing in reading, mathematics and science having taken place in 2000, 2003 and 2006 respectively. The next survey is scheduled for 2009 and repeating the triennial cycle, will focus on reading. The full report from 2006 is available from here, together with a more easily digestible executive summary [PDF].

The chart below (click to open) shows the mean performance of countries surveyed for 2006 (e.g. science). 

pisamean2006.gif
   

The countries are ordered from top-left to bottom-right in the legend by performance. Overall, I think its fair to say that Australia is quite well placed in ninth slot, although there is of course still room for comparative improvement. There are a few surprises. Finland is at the top of the leaderboard, although its much lauded Scandinavian neighbours Sweden and Norway did not fairly nearly so well. The United States is quite far down the list, sandwiched between Latvia and the Slovak Republic, and New Zealand just managed to outperform Australia.

While it is obvious that certain policies may only really work in certain social and cultural environments, and that different nations have different situations to deal with, one would have to think that the governments of the world should be playing fairly close attention to how Finland approaches the education of its students. When it comes to education, it is wonderful to think that Australia could one day be the nation setting the benchmark when it comes to performance metrics like these.

That is just one aspect of the challenge that lies ahead for the Rudd Government and its much vaunted education agenda. There is no excuse for the government not to aim to provide (either directly or indirectly) Australian children with the best education in the world.

Is extending a bad model really the way forward?

Regular readers will know of my extreme consternation when the Rudd Opposition declared that it would retain the Howard Government’s SES schools funding formula for non-government schools until at least 2012. There are quite simply reams of criticisms that can legitimately made of how the formula is applied and the way the system currently works, many of which have been quite poignantly made by Federal Labor over the years, while in Opposition. The current model does not allow for funding to drop, even if the SES “ranking” of a particular school changes from year to year. The current model is based on the socio-economic status of the census district of families who send their kids to a given school, rather than the actual socio-economic status of the families. It does not take into full consideration the facilities or assets a particular school has as its disposal. Quite simply, the SES funding model is inaccurate and needs a overhaul if the government is truly serious about funding non-government schools in an equitable and transparent way.

Given my feelings about the inherently flawed SES model, I must say I am feeling a bit perturbed that the Rudd Government is now looking to extend the model to also cover public schools, as Paul Kelly reports:

In an interview with The Weekend Australian, Ms Gillard said it was a “great frustration” that she was able to determine the socio-economic status of private schools but not public ones.

As a policy-maker, I cannot look across the nation now and identify within the public and private systems those schools teaching children from households most likely to face educational disadvantage,” she said.

I do continue to believe that needs-based funding for all schools in Australia is the right path forward for the country, and I can understand the need to have some common metric for comparing schools across the government/non-government divide. I am also quietly wondering whether this may be the means that Federal Labor is going to use to reinvigorate the federal funding of government schools, given that it is to be expected that on average, government schools should score better on the SES model than non-government schools, especially those located in affluent areas. However, we are still using a flawed model. Measuring all schools against a common metric does take the country a couple of steps forward, but the fact that the common model that would be applied is flawed and inaccurate takes us one step backwards again.

I therefore strongly urge the government to reform the SES funding formula as part of any initiative to introduce government schools into the scheme. Julia Gillard should not have to look too far for suggestions on this issue. Treasurer Wayne Swan told us all about the problems with the SES model back in 2005 in his carefully compiled book Postcode: The Splintering of a Nation. Despite their election commitment to the mediocrity of the current funding model for non-government schools, it would be disingenuous of Federal Labor to simply ignore their own quite correct criticisms of the model now that they are in government. If there was just one election commitment that I wished the Rudd Government would break before 2012, it would be this one (well, okay, and this one).

ELSEWHERE: You can feel the pain of raging lefty Steve Cannane as he interviews Julia Gillard here, back in January of this year. He asks good if very much loaded questions, and to Gillard’s political credit, she fends them off quite ably.